Saudi-Iranian tensions escalate over regional issues
LONDON - The war of words between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to escalate amid mounting tensions concerning wars in Syria and Yemen.
World and regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, met in Vienna to discuss a political solution to Syria’s civil war. However, angry exchanges between representatives of Saudi Arabia and Iran cast doubts on the likelihood of a consensus on the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad or good relations between the two countries, for that matter.
Furthermore, the Iranian delegation in Vienna threatened to quit the Syria talks, citing what it described as Saudi Arabia’s “unconstructive role,” while Iranian President Hassan Rohani appeared to launch a personal attack on Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
“An inexperienced young man in a regional country will not reach anywhere by rudeness in front of elders,” Rohani was quoted as saying although he did not name Jubeir by name.
For his part, the 53-year-old Saudi foreign minister, who US officials say was the target of a 2011 assassination plot by Iran’s security services when he was an ambassador in Washington, accused Tehran of attempting to smuggle weapons into Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as meddling in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. That, he said, was “driving the negativity” in Saudi- Iranian relations, despite numerous attempts by the kingdom to repair relations.
The escalation in rhetoric is a consequence of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies’ success in cutting off Iran’s on-the-ground support for Houthi rebels and supporters of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This resulted in Iran’s state-controlled media starting an aggressive campaign against the GCC and Saudi Arabia in particular.
The hardline Fars news agency over the summer released a video clip showing Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud morphing into Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator and one of the most hated modern figures in Iran.
When an Iranian court sentenced an activist to more than 12 years in prison on charges including drawing cartoons of Iranian lawmakers, the Islamic Republic sponsored a cartoon contest about the Yemen war, with an emphasis on lampooning the Saudis. The winning work depicted the Islamic profession of faith on the Saudi flag being erased as bombs fell in Yemen.
“They are trying to turn on its head the narrative that Iran is always the one destabilising the region,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations
Tensions between the Iran and other GCC members have been well documented. At a security conference in Manama, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa compared Iran’s subversive activities in Arab states, as big of a threat to the region as the Islamic State (ISIS). He also accused Iran of smuggling arms into Bahrain.
Bahraini security officials recently uncovered a large stash of weapons and arrested a number of people suspected of having links to Iran. Bahrain then recalled its ambassador from Iran and ordered the Islamic Republic’s envoy to leave.
A statement by Bahraini Foreign Ministry said that the steps were taken in response to “continuing interference by Iran in the affairs of the kingdom” and an attempt by Tehran to foment “confessional sedition”.
The United Arab Emirates, home to hundreds of thousands of Iranian expatriates, has accused Iran of stirring up unrest in Arab states, with tensions dating to a 1971 dispute over the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa. Abu Dhabi’s involvement in the war in Yemen also increased tensions between the two countries.
Before a meeting at Camp David with US President Barack Obama regarding the Iran nuclear deal, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said: “The main problem in the relations between Iran and the Arab world is Iran’s wish for expansion. The nuclear agreement between Tehran and the West creates a new dynamism that, based on indications, is not in favour of the moderate camp in Iran. The nuclear agreement will help Iran expand internationally at the expense of the Arabs.”
At the recent Manama meeting, GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif al-Zayani called on Iran to stop interfering in GCC affairs and end its occupation of three UAE islands.
In Kuwait in August, after security officials seized an arms cache hidden in a house near its border with Iraq, 26 suspects were arrested for being members of a Hezbollah-linked cell. The weapons included rocket-propelled grenades, more than 100 kilograms of explosives, firearms, ammunition and detonators.
The negotiations and proxy wars continue.